Para-e-dil hai watan ki sarzameen mushkil yeh hai
Shehr ko viran kahen, ya dil ko virana kahen

The territory of the homeland is a piece of the heart, this is the difficulty.
Should (we) call the city desolate, or call the heart a wilderness?

— Majrooh Sultanpuri

This was the sh’er that came to mind on reading Ali Khan Mahmudabad’s Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850-1950. In this book, Ali Khan convincingly argues that the archive of Urdu poetry continues to open up multiple “normative horizons” – here, multiple ways of imagining, inhabiting and belonging to a place – that challenge the dominance of the nation-state as the sole measure and arbiter of belonging.

For instance, as Ali Khan shows us that in nineteenth century marsiyas – central to Shia devotional life – the flora, fauna and even customs with which Karbala was depicted were deeply Indian, thus collapsing the distance, conceptual and affective, between the distant and the local. Khan characterises this as “cosmopolitan rootedness”.

Urdu poetry was the medium in which many different, historically contingent, and conceptually shifting articulations of what it might mean to be and to belong – to be Muslim and to be of India – were articulated in the almost century-long period from the destruction of Delhi and the formal end of Mughal sovereignty in 1857 to the coming into being of the nation-states of India and Pakistan in 1947, divided on religious lines.

Majrooh’s distich embodies and articulates Khan’s argument. Here watan, or homeland, retains its older metaphysical sense. If the territory of the homeland is a piece of the heart, it gestures towards the Sufi meanings of the Arabic watan, where the watan is the landscape of one’s own interiority. It also carries with it the legacy of the shehr-ashob, the lament for the city.

As Ali Khan shows, it was in the mourning of the destruction of the cities of north India during the eighteenth century decline of the Mughal empire that the first stirrings of an identity rooted in a geographically bounded space – the space of the city – became visible. The watan of the shehr-ashob is not the imagined community of the nation, but the intimate and familiar streets of one’s own city and its people, rendered desolate.

Then and now

Shehr ko viran kahen, ya dil ko virana kahen? I cannot turn to Majrooh’s sh’er now without visions of the blackened, buckled walls of homes destroyed by exploding gas cylinders that I saw in Shiv Vihar in the aftermath of the recent violence in Delhi. This too has come to pass upon the city and its people. Those who subscribe to the singular normative horizon of the muscular Hindu rashtra wreaked vengeance on those who chose to articulate different visions of India, and what it means to belong to it.

In all the spaces that have been assailed by the Delhi police and by rioters since the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act – in Jamia, in Jafrabad, in Khureji and Mustafabad – the walls were covered with anti-CAA graffiti. The anti-CAA protests all over the country were characterised by incredible creativity, multiple articulations of belonging to India in all its diversity.

Think of Hussain Haidary’s poem, Main Hindustani Musalman Hoon, which articulates with crystal clarity how an Indian Muslim subjectivity – while being Muslim in all the ethical, theological and ritual specificities of that term – is so deeply shaped by the diversity of India that it could not belong anywhere else. That peaceful protests which celebrate the multiplicity of belonging to a homeland have been met with brutal state-condoned violence tells us much about the intellectual poverty of religious nationalism.

If the previous paragraphs seem to have veered off topic, it is a testament to the fact that Ali Khan Mahmudabad’s book – with its thought-provoking insights, its deep knowledge of Urdu poetry and the lives of poets, and his eye for illuminating anecdotes – is remarkably productive of thought. It allows us to see how diverse and complex much of Indian Muslim thought was – and continues to be – on the question of belonging to India, both politically and affectively.

That much of this has been (deliberately) forgotten in the fog of post-Partition majoritarianism and growing Islamophobia is one of the central tragedies of our time. Rarely has a book of history been so relevant to the present.

Poetry Of Belonging

Poetry Of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings Of India 1850-1950, Ali Khan Mahmudabad, Oxford University Press.